Karim Sy, Jokkolabs

Karim Sy: ‘We cannot think Africa without agriculture’

Karim Sy, Jokkolabs

Pierre Metivier

Friday, 13 April 2018 Updated on Monday, 23 April 2018

Forty-six-year-old Karim Sy rejects the label of ‘incubator’, preferring to describe himself as a ‘serial entrepreneur’. Nevertheless, Jokkolabs, his non-profit organisation set up in Senegal in 2010, now has 12 hubs spread in Africa and Europe, and is trying to uncover the African entrepreneurs of tomorrow. Recently appointed to the Presidential Council for Africa by French President Emmanuel Macron, Sy has also been working for several years with the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA) through the AgriHack programme.

Why Jokkolabs?

Major challenges, beyond the new emerging technologies, are unfolding in Africa: the demographic challenge, urban growth and the way that agriculture fits in to the new realities. New technologies are exceptional in the way they can mobilise and involve people, in how they can build bridges. But in order to shift the lines, to take on those challenges that defy borders, we need a multi-stakeholder movement, mobilising the private and the public sectors, as well as civil society.

What does the Jokkolabs network look like today?

At Jokkolabs, we have partnerships with an NGO, an art gallery, a school and social entrepreneurs via 12 organically driven hubs in nine countries. In Africa, we have different scales: support is on a case-by-case basis, there is no one-size-fits-all solution that can apply to eight countries. In Dakar, we have a big centre, which generates a lot of activities and events, while in Mali or Cameroon we’ll have spaces that are smaller but equally creative. The profiles are very different and are drawn from many sectors, including agriculture: today, we cannot think about Africa without thinking about agriculture.

In 10 years, a hundred million young Africans will enter the labour market, mainly in the agricultural sector. How can we direct them towards agriculture?

First of all, we need to make agriculture attractive. I was talking to a youngster who was telling me: ‘My grandfather is a farmer, my father too. Not me, I am studying, I want to do something else.’ And yet we’re going to have to feed an exploding global population. Sixty per cent of non-cultivated arable land on earth is in Africa, so it is Africa that bears the challenges of tomorrow and agriculture is on the front line. In Senegal, 300,000 young people leave school every year. There are a few incubators, but they host a dozen businesses at most over a period of three to five years. At that rate, we’ll never get there. We have to create local momentum, unleash the capacity for entrepreneurship, for action. That’s where young people and the digital technology come in.

But for that, we need to bring digital to the countryside.

Agriculture is a difficult sector in the sense that its activity takes place away from capital cities, and we are mainly present in the capitals. We need to come closer to the countryside. That’s why we’re preparing to develop a hub in Korhogo in Côte d'Ivoire, in a rural area, to organise competitions, support young entrepreneurs in promising projects around agriculture. I remain convinced that, if people in the United States can start up from their garage, we can do the same in small spaces set up in the countryside. Events organised by CTA in which we took part, such as the Pitch AgriHack initiative, foreshadow this emergence, but we also need action on the ground, far from the big cities.

In Dakar, in Cameroon or in France, in Nanterre, can you describe your daily life as an incubator?

First of all, I’d like to stress that I am not an incubator: I provide a completely open neighbourhood infrastructure. We have no entry selection criteria, because I am quite incapable of predicting who will be the new Steve Jobs. We provide the means and then we see. We also facilitate the exchange of expertise, provide access to peer training. On a more personal level, I lead the exchanges of the network and the resource centre, to try to coordinate the project dynamic between countries. Finally, there is the action tank, in other words ways of thinking proactively about projects: for example, carrying out sanitation mapping of Senegal around open source software. We have also launched the Jokkokids project to think about how children can face up to the 21st century and digital technology in particular, through workshops and multi-disciplinary activities.

Since the creation of Jokkolabs, how has CTA supported you?

First of all, we were partners of the AgriHack events in 2015 and 2017. It was interesting, because it was an application of our work in agriculture. CTA is a reference in the field: it’s a catalyst, a major actor due to its output of research, its wealth of information. All its content is freely available online, it has an open resource centre. And then with events, CTA enables an exchange of good practices, the identification of issues, of partners whom we have subsequently been able to approach with Jokkolabs. It’s really a driving force when it comes to blending agriculture and technology. They really work in tangible impacts.

How do you see this collaboration in the future?

One actor will never be able to do everything: this is our situation with CTA. We have pinpointed something that works in agriculture, so how can we bring together more partners, reproduce it, develop it further? We are looking at ways to establish an active partnership and thus build a new level of relationship, beyond projects, to disseminate everything that is done through CTA.        

Karim Sy, Jokkolabs

Karim Sy, Jokkolabs

Pierre Metivier

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